By Mike Johnson (Kiwipoet)
‘Something in the moonlight still haunts him.’ (Handy Dandy)
In the last post I focused on Dylan’s performance of his most recent songs, that is, from the albums Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006). I commented that his enthusiasm for those songs was, in the main, more evident than for his older songs, some of which he seemed to struggle with.
I’m going to start this post by picking up where I left off, and look at some of those more recent songs I haven’t yet covered.
Let’s start with ‘Things Have Changed’ from the Oeiras concert (11th July). This is a wonderful recording and a passionate vocal performance, perhaps the most passionate of any performances of the song we’ve so far encountered.
Despite this, you might not like it. Why? Because of the bouncy beat, a variation of what I have been calling the dumpty-dum. Listening to this, my ambivalence with regard to these 2008 performances reached a peak. In some respects, this is a ‘best ever’ and yet in the end the rigidity of the beat got the better of me. It was okay to begin with, but by the end I was wearying of it despite the superb vocal. Readers may not find that bouncy beat a bother. If that’s the case, enjoy!
Things Have Changed.
Not hard to see why such performances were controversial.
Also from Oeiras, we find a turbo-charged performance of ‘Lonesome Day Blues,’ from Love and Theft. In this case the bouncy beat is not so much of a problem as the blues is suited to it, and here it has a bit of swing to it. The song is a traditional urban blues with a Dylan twist to the lyrics. Of interest is the number of words he squeezes into the last line of each verse.
Well the road’s washed out, weather not fit for man or beast Yeah the road's washed out, weather not fit for man or beast Funny, the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least
Lonesome Day Blues
Note the theme here of extreme weather events, a theme that shows up in other songs of the period like ‘High Water (for Charlie Patten)’ and ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break.’
For ‘Million Miles’ we go back to Time Out Of Mind where it takes its place among the intensely personal and dark songs on that album. ‘Million Miles’ is a jazzy, blues infused song concerning the gulf that can separate lovers. Again, the bounce here is not such a problem as it’s in keeping with the genre, and again, Dylan’s vocal is compelling and his harp playing exquisite. This is not the ‘muted trumpet’ sound of 2003-2005, which made the harp sound distant, but sharper and brought forward.
Also brought forward is the organ. In 2006-2007 Dylan was content to have the organ very much in the background, sometimes hardly audible, often just thin notes weaving through the texture of the music. In 2008, however, he begins to bring the organ forward, vamping the chords, getting a richer sound than has been evident so far. This one’s from the 27th October, Calgary.
Another Time Out Of Mind song performed at Calgary is ‘Tryin To Get To Heaven’ where once again extreme weather features:
The air is getting hotter There's a rumbling in the skies I've been wading through the high muddy water With the heat rising in my eyes
The song is full of pathos and a despair at the vacuous nature of modern life.
Gonna sleep down in the parlor And relive my dreams I'll close my eyes and I wonder If everything is as hollow as it seems
The same odd juxtaposition occurs here, an incomparable vocal hitched to a stilted rhythm. I’m not sure what Dylan is trying to do with these stilted rhythms except perhaps return to the roots of modern jazz in the keyboard playing of Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. There’s bounce and dumpty-dum there too. Interested readers might like to sample ‘The Crave’ by Jelly Roll Morton …
Is this era of music the origin of Dylan’s strange, wooden rhythms?
Tryin to Get to Heaven.
In part 1 of 2008, I included an ‘Ain’t Talkin’ from Vigo, Spain, and said that I was on the lookout for a better performance. I think I might have found one from the Oeiras concert. Whether this performance stands up to the great performances of 2007 (See NET 2007 part 1) I’ll leave to the reader. The ambience may not be as spooky as the 2007 performances, but again the vocal can’t be faulted. Since this song is a walking song, with its roots in walking blues, there’s no problem with the rigidity of rhythm. Unsatisfied spiritual hunger seems to drive the song, and the pilgrimage of the singer.
Before leaving Dylan’s contemporary songs behind (Time out of Mind through to Modern Times) let’s check out what must be a contender for the saddest love song ever written, ‘To Make You Feel My Love,’ a song made famous by Adele. The lengths we’ll go for love!
Arguably Adele’s voice is a bit too sugary for the song, amazing as her version is. Maybe it sounds more convincing delivered by the old circus barker himself, a sad old voice for a sad old song, even though it does lumber along a bit. This one’s from Vancouver.
To Make You Feel My Love
Perhaps no one will ever know what prompted Dylan to pull ‘Handy Dandy’ out of the hat for a one-off performance in Vigo, Spain, an obscure song from Under the Red Sky (1990). Occasionally Dylan does this, presents a song that he’s never performed before. Remember ‘Million Dollar Bash’ from 2005?
‘Handy Dandy’ is what your English teacher might have called a ‘character study.’ It is a portrait of a character, precise in its details but murky at the same time. It’s a complex portrait with several fragments of conversation:
You say, "What are ya made of?" He says, "Can you repeat what you said?" You'll say, "What are you afraid of?" He'll say, "Nothin' neither 'live nor dead"
Note the shift from the present to the future tense. Does it shift from being a real conversation to an imaginary one? Do we ever, finally, connect in our conversations?
And as for squeezing a lot of words into the melodic line, it’s hard to beat this verse:
Handy dandy, sitting with a girl named Nancy in a garden feelin' kind of lazy He says, "Ya want a gun? I'll give you one." She says, "Boy, you talking crazy" Handy dandy, just like sugar and candy Handy dandy, pour him another brandy
The character that emerges from these assembled fragments is of some small time big shot and ego tripper with a streak of paranoia. He’s ‘been around the world and back again’ but has ‘a basket of flowers and a bag full of sorrow.’ There are the inevitable suggestions that this is an oblique self-portrait but I don’t feel that; he’s more like some character you might run into in a bar.
Dylan puts a rollicking beat to this performance, quite different from the album version, which sounds a bit like ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ with the chord structure of that song. This performance makes the character sound more laid back, less desperate and intense than on the album.
After that rarity, it’s time to return to more familiar territory, some of Dylan’s old favourites. ‘Watching The River Flow’ has a pleasing bluesy rhythm, a good song to kick off a concert. This is number one on the Calgary setlist. Dylan is clearly in good form, the audience responsive. I miss the wailing harp breaks of previous performances but no complaints.
Watching the River Flow
‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ has gone through many changes over the years, not all of them successful. This one from Calgary doesn’t convince me either, but you can get hard to please with great versions of the song ringing in your years.
Again, easy to see why some Dylan fans might react negatively to this performance. That rigid beat cuts up the vocal line into little bits. With each word being emphasized the flow is lost, the drama is lost. The vocal delivery is oddly emphatic. It’s a curiosity, and there are other versions I’d much rather listen to, despite the trenchant harp break which also falls victim to the musical rigidity. The song seems to have lost its soul.
It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
‘Girl From the North Country’ fares somewhat better. Dylan keeps the baroque feeling that he’s been developing for some years now, and it suits the song even though it doesn’t flow as it once did. The half-talking vocal delivery suits the song too. These old regards are hard to lay to rest. An excellent recording from Oeiras.
Girl from the North Country
Dylan didn’t forget his old protest songs in 2008. This performance of ‘It’s All Right Ma’ features Donnie Herron on the banjo, giving it a country rather than a hard rock feel. Fully committed vocal from Dylan. This Oeiras version seems more in the spirit of the original than some of the more ponderous rock versions we’ve seen, it skips along at a foot-tapping speed. The important thing for me is that the song does not lose its angry edge. This magnificent denunciation of the greed and falseness of the world has not lost its relevance, and while it may be tickled along by the banjo it can still cut deep.
It’s All Right Ma
‘Masters of War’ also continues its run of powerful performances. As I’ve suggested, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine gives the song a contemporary edge. Those masters of war are still at work. The circus barker’s voice does this song no harm either. Wonderful, passionate vocal from Dylan, obsessively relentless backing from the band. Like a slow, stiff-legged march. (Buenos Aires, 15th March)
Masters of War
And where would we be without ‘Blowin In The Wind’? A great way to wind up a concert. Some of us purists might have trouble with the waltzlike, rollicking tempo but it seems to suit the song somehow. It’s no longer thin and plaintive, as it first was, but, behind the happy beat, insinuating and insistent. This may be an old complaint, and we might even be able to dance to it, but there’s the sting of sadness in the tail. How many times, how many years, indeed.
Dylan finishes off the Buenos Aires concert with this one and I’ll do the same. See you soon with a roundup of the some of the strays from 2008 not so far covered.
Blowin in the Wind